The Conjurer: A Martha Beale Mystery
by Cordelia Frances Biddle
Review by Carter Jefferson
St. Martin's Minotaur Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312352462
Date: 06 February 2007 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Philadelphia Financier Lemuel Beale disappears near the riverbank on his country estate, leaving his timid, over-protected daughter in the hands of his officious confidential secretary, Owen Simms. At 26, in the year 1842, Martha knows nothing of the world, but she can't believe her healthy, vigorous father drowned, no matter what the constables--and Owen Simms--insist. Only the mayor's investigator, Thomas Kelman, is willing to inquire into the details of the case.
Kelman already has his hands full probing the murder of a child prostitute, but his load increases as more victims turn up. Meanwhile, a poor tailor escapes from forbidding Cherry Hill prison on the same day Ruth, a young black mother, is released after serving a three-year term for theft. Ruth seeks her lost son, while the tailor, whose wife and child are confined in an insane asylum, tries to avoid recapture. All this goes on while Emily Durand, the selfish queen of Philadelphia society, finds herself hopelessly in love with a visiting Italian star of the wildly popular spiritualist craze of the 19th century.
The conjuror, Eusapio Paladino, visits a select gathering at one socialite's mansion to contact spirits of the dead, but instead of pleasing his hostess, he envisions a scene not unlike the ones the child murderer leaves behind. Ultimately, he's a likely fall guy when the villains want to deflect attention from themselves. Kelman, the mayor's detective, is the only person who keeps an open mind. He also has an eye for Martha, who, of course, can't believe he's interested in a spinster of her advanced age.
These strands slowly come together while Martha weakly protests against the complacency of the authorities, only to back down in her demands whenever the men in her life press her; after all, she is only a woman, not used to logical thinking. Finally, however, her tentative efforts result in triumph.
Biddle writes well, and gives the reader a rich portrait of the life of both rich and poor in Philadelphia in that time. It's not a pretty picture. Martha Beale is an appealing heroine, but her erratic attempts to solve the mystery make her seem a hopeless case until the very end. Biddle's characters are lifelike, but unfortunately there are too many of them, and too many plot lines. Moreover, it's fairly obvious from the start who the villains have to be, but somehow one is left wondering just why her father kept Martha so completely isolated from the high society to which she should belong, and to the world in general. That mystery is never solved.
Readers who value atmosphere and setting will find this book fascinating, and its picture of the status of women in all classes of society is enough to make a feminist of almost anybody. As social history, it's a great success. But those for whom plot matters a great deal had better read it through at a sitting, or plan to spend some time leafing back to keep track of just who is who, and what's going on.